‘The Last Waltz’ With Robbie Robertson Is One of Rock’s Great Docs

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The director and the guitarist formed a close bond during postproduction, leading to them living together and attending parties together in Paris and Rome. However, their closeness caused friction within the Band, as some members felt that the film, “The Last Waltz,” focused too much on Robbie Robertson and not enough on the other band members, despite its critical acclaim.

Levon Helm, the drummer known for his soulful voice in songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” publicly voiced his criticisms of the film with the release of his memoir, “This Wheel’s on Fire,” in 1993. He referred to the movie as a “disaster” and accused Martin Scorsese, the director, of spotlighting Robertson while disregarding the contributions of the other band members.

At this point, Robertson and Helm had experienced vastly different levels of success and financial stability. Ken Gordon wrote in a 2015 essay, “Robbie won. Levon lost.” People tend to take sides, with some siding with winners and others with losers. Helm’s book negatively impacted Robertson’s reputation in certain circles, which likely influenced subsequent evaluations of “The Last Waltz,” especially after its rerelease in theaters and on DVD in 2002.

According to Stephen E. Severn’s analysis in Film Quarterly, the true subject of the movie is not the Band as a whole, but rather Robbie Robertson. Severn argues that nearly every visual and thematic element of “The Last Waltz” is designed to highlight Robertson’s talents at the expense of the other band members. Nevertheless, Severn acknowledges that it may be the best film ever made about the music scene, unintentionally shedding light on the cutthroat nature of the industry.

Almost 25 years after its initial release, “The Last Waltz” was consistently included on lists of the greatest music documentaries. However, some critics, like Roger Ebert, challenged its status. Ebert wrote in 2002 that the film had been inexplicably called the greatest rock documentary of all time. Elvis Mitchell also reevaluated the movie that same year in The New York Times, highlighting the pleasure of watching Robertson captivate Scorsese.

Today, the film is viewed with a more skeptical eye, but its stature has never diminished. Even its strongest critics acknowledge its quality. Levon Helm grudgingly admitted in his book, “Critics called the movie the best and most sumptuous film ever made about a rock concert, and I suppose that’s true.”

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